Cold War giants in tiny rooms

posted by Jason Kottke Mar 26, 2008

In Arsenals of Folly, Richard Rhodes details the making of the nuclear arms race between the United States and the Soviet Union, with a particular focus on the roles of Ronald Reagan and Mikhail Gorbachev. The book is fantastic and a full review is forthcoming, but I wanted to share a couple of passages that would be worthy of cinematic adaptation.

A pivotal event in the book is the 1986 summit meeting between the two leaders in Reykjavik, Iceland. For two full days, Gorbachev and Reagan discussed drastically reducing the number of nuclear weapons in the two countries' arsenals with the eventual goal of eliminating nuclear weapons altogether. Gorbachev proposed meeting in Iceland because it was halfway between the US and the Soviet Union, but the tiny country was unprepared in some ways for the number of people participating in the negotiations.

Back at the American Embassy, Shultz assembled Donald Regan, John Poindexter, Paul Nitze, Richard Perle, Max Kampelman, Kenneth Adelman, and Poindexter's military assistant, Robert Linhard, inside what Adelman calls "the smallest bubble ever built" — the Plexiglas security chamber, specially coated to repel electromagnetic radiation and mounted on blocks to limit acoustic transmissions, that is a feature of every U.S. Embassy in the world. Since the State Department had seen no need for extensive security arrangements for negotiating U.S. relations with little Iceland, the Reykjavik Embassy bubble was designed to hold only eight people. When Reagan arrived, the air-lock-like door swooshed and everyone stood up, bumping into each other and knocking over chairs in the confusion. Reagan put people at ease with a joke. "We could fill this thing up with water," he said, gesturing, "and use it as a fish tank." Adelman gave up his chair to the president and sat on the floor leaning against the tailored presidential legs, a compass rose of shoes touching his at the center of the circle.

And later, the US team deliberated in an even tinier space:

Gorbachev and Reagan returned. The leaders retreated upstairs with their teams. Reagan's advisors briefed him in the only place where they could meet in private, Rowny recalled, "a little ten by twelve bathroom where about ten of us crowded in. Several stood in the bathtub, Reagan was on the throne. I was agitated, I was worried about the idea of giving up all nuclear weapons."

The metaphorical possibilities of these two scenes are endless. I hope someone working with a good cinematographer makes a movie out of the book.